As I’m sure most of you read this past week, NBC has decided to renew Smash for a second season, but has decided not to retain Theresa Rebeck as showrunner. So what does that mean for all of us, and for our love/hate relationship with this nutty backstage musical? Well, with someone else in charge, it’s possible that Smash will finally live up to its potential, or at the least reach a more consistent level of competence—which would be good news for those of us who’ve been rooting for Smash to succeed, and bad news for those of you who’d rather watch the show flame out week after week. But for the latter group, take heart! Rumor has it that NBC wants Smash to focus less on the insider-y Broadway stuff—in other words, the material that the show has actually handled reasonably well—and focus more on the personal lives of the stars. In other words: More affairs! More adoption! More pot-smokin’ teens! There’s hope yet for all you so-bad-it’s-good Smash-ers. (Smash-holes? Smash-ellites? What shall we call ourselves?)
I’ll give this week’s “The Coup” this: Even before the director’s credit came up, I noticed a bit more of a snap to the camera moves and the performances, so I wasn’t all that surprised when I saw that the multi-Emmy-winning Paris Barclay was at the helm. I also noticed more wince-inducing dialogue and superfluous subplots than usual (even by Smash standards), so I also wasn’t surprised to see that this week’s script is credited to Rebeck.
Look, I don’t want to be unfair here. I’ll admit that part of my frustration with Smash is that with only 44 minutes a week to fill, Rebeck and her writers seem to waste an awful lot of time on characters and stories that are non-starters. I can’t be the only one this week who looked up at the screen, saw a scene that featured Dev and not Karen, and sighed, “Really? Dev? That’s what you’re going with?” But in retrospect, I do see a point to the Dev storyline in “The Coup.” Dev finds out from his journalist pal RJ that his chief political rival sent an Anthony Weiner-style “sext” to a 17-year-old girl, and though it goes against his moral code, Dev decides to use the information. He takes a chance, and he fails—because for some reason, this perv has protection from the higher-ups.
And something similar happens with Karen in this episode. Derek asks her to take part in a super-secret rehearsal of a new song, written for the show by Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic. (I could tell it was Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic because Karen helpfully says, “Ryan Tedder?! I’m such a huge fan of OneRepublic!”) Karen initially refuses, not wanting to piss off Tom or Julia, who’ve been so good to her. But Derek convinces her that it’ll be okay, and that this sort of thing happens in show business all the time. It felt awful to watch Karen bump and grind her way through Tedder’s techno-pop “Touch Me,” before collapsing on a bed that doubles as a cage. Tom and Julia are, naturally, mortified, while Ivy and Ellis gloat in the wings, leaving Karen to apologize. So it is that Karen and Dev prove to be partners in rube-ery, yet again.
I have to say though: I may be done trying to defend Katharine McPhee in this role. Granted, part of the problem here is that she’s saddled with such a one-dimensional character: always good-hearted, always meek. But even still, her mumbly line readings and perpetually stunned expression are getting harder to take each week—especially when she’s meant to seductive, or so super-talented than even Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic knows who she is.
I also have to say: There are plenty of scenes in “The Coup” that are neither thematically relevant nor entertaining. Some are just the TV equivalent of busywork. We see Julia officially break it off with Michael, while telling him he’s out of the show. And we see Leo’s court date, in which Tom’s boyfriend,, John comes through for the Houston clan despite Julia “comically” yelling at the judge. (Even in an episode where Julia has very little to do, Rebeck finds a way to make her star abrasive. What did Debra Messing ever do to her producer to deserve this kind of treatment? I’d like to find out, and then make a TV show about that.)
The lowest point in “The Coup,” though, comes via a new character who initially seems like a positive addition: Eileen’s daughter, Katie (played by the other Meryl Streep daughter, Grace Gummer). Katie swoops into her mother’s remarkably pricey-looking flop, and initiates talks with her father to get her mom the money she deserves. All long overdue. But then “Mahatma Katie”—so named because of her idealism, which she expresses via globe-trotting activism—tags along to see Karen’s big “Touch Me” performance, and she’s appalled that her mother would treat Tom and Julia so shabbily. Out on the docks (where the rehearsal space is located), she lays into Eileen via one of the most out-of-nowhere, painfully awkward “wake up” speeches since Studio 60’s infamous “Your little brother is standing in the middle of Afghanistan!” (Sample dialogue: “I don’t want to put toxic garbage into the world!” Sweetie, sweetie… You’re a Streep. No one’s forcing you to be on Smash.)
And yet, just as a birdie on the 18th can make a duffer look forward to his next round of golf, so a few good late scenes will keep me from completely trashing this Smash. After Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic packs up his Casio, Tom and Derek air some grievances, with the former calling the latter out for being a two-faced bully, and the latter telling the former that Marilyn Monroe is “not some sweet little gay male fantasy” and that this show is going to need to get a lot hetero-sexier. (I’d like to explore this topic more next week, because it’s a fascinating one to me. Stick a pin it it… or whatever the corporate buzz term is now for bumping an action-item.) And then the scene that follows is just as charged, in which Tom lets Ivy know that Eileen wants a star to play Marilyn. It’s enough, yet again, to get me excited about next week’s episode, damn it all.
Arrgh! So up and down, this show. A good confrontation here, a fun song there… and then agonizing scenes of Ellis playing evil puppetmaster, even as he admits to his girlfriend that he doesn’t really understand anything about the power-structure of the Broadway theater.
It’s this kind of crap that makes me want to flee to Micronesia.
- Some nice costuming in this episode. I loved Derek’s ankle-length duster, and though dressing opposing characters in opposing colors is a cliché, I still liked the white-on-black versus black-on-white shading in Ivy’s showdown with Karen on the docks.
- I said that “The Coup” improves in its final 10 minutes, but actually there are some highlights earlier. Just as I was typing up a pissy note about wasting time watching Ivy go bowling, she and her friends started dancing around to Sly & The Family Stone’s “Dance To The Music,” which is such a joyous song that it made an otherwise pointless scene worthwhile. Also, I enjoyed seeing Katie and Derek both tell off Ellis. Maybe now that everyone know’s he’s a rat, there’ll be more of that.
- Tell the truth: When Dev and RJ hugged each other in his apartment, you all started counting down in your head to when Karen would walk in, right? Tell me I’m not alone here.
- A semi-clever attempt to bring the tin-eared Frank into the musical party, as he sings Bob Marley while playing a Rock Star-esque Wii game. (But the song choice… Oof! I thought they were trying to keep Leo off drugs.)
- You know what makes purity so much better? Sex.